Rep. Michele Bachmann, who today officially announce her candidacy for the presidency, isn't just a Tea Party candidate -- in many ways she embodies the evolution of the movement. The Minnesota congresswoman, who built a reputation as an outspoken and often outrageous defender of extreme social conservatism, is increasingly trying to portray herself as a champion of fiscal conservatism -- and using the language of social conservatism to do it. As she attempts to frame herself as a low-tax champion, and tone down her speech to reach a broader audience, it's important to remember where Bachmann's fiscal conservatism comes from. Bachmann represents a newly powerful force in American politics: a hard-right, pro-corporate fiscal conservative wrapped up in the rhetoric of the Religious Right. To know her, you have to know the far-right social movement in which she remains rooted.
A former state legislator who built her career fighting reproductive choice and gay rights, Bachmann continues to ally herself with far-right groups in her home state and to push her extreme ideology in Congress. As a Minnesota state senator, she was known for her radical anti-choice, anti-gay and anti-evolution campaigns. She co-sponsored a measure to give "14th Amendment protections to an embryo or fetus," similar to the extreme and likely unconstitutional fetal "personhood" amendments that have been rejected by even very conservative state legislatures in recent months. She has since endorsed one such measure in Ohio, which would ban abortions after the "heartbeat" of a fetus is detected. She cosponsored legislation to undermine the teaching of evolution, stating that people who believe in the science of evolution are part of a "cult following."
But she was perhaps best known for her all-out campaign against gay rights. A People For the American Way report summarized:
In the State Senate, she spearheaded the effort to pass a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. "The immediate consequence, if gay marriage goes through," Bachmann said , "is that K-12 little children will be forced to learn that homosexuality is normal, natural and perhaps they should try it." She has also referred to homosexuality as "personal enslavement" and a "sexual identity disorder." Bachmann also promoted the claim that gays and lesbians recruit children, maintaining that her mission to block LGBT rights "is a very serious matter, because it is our children who are the prize for this community, they are specifically targeting our children."
Bachmann's willingness to go to the extreme right of any social debate earned her like-minded friends in Minnesota. She has forged close ties with a pastor named Bradlee Dean and his extreme anti-gay ministry, "You Can Run But You Cannot Hide." Dean believes that homosexuality should be criminalized , and once praised Muslims who call for the execution of homosexuals as "more moral" than toleration-minded American Christians:
Muslims are calling for the executions of homosexuals in America. This just shows you they themselves are upholding the laws that are even in the Bible of the Judeo-Christian God, but they seem to be more moral than even the American Christians do, because these people are livid about enforcing their laws. They know homosexuality is an abomination...Hollywood is promoting immorality and God of the heavens in Jesus' name is warning you to turn from the wrath to come. Yet you have Muslims calling for your execution. If America won't enforce the laws, God will raise up a foreign enemy to do just that. That's what you are seeing today in America.
Dean claims that most gay people are child molesters, estimating that "on average, they molest 117 people before they're found out" and insists that anti-bullying programs in schools amount to "homosexual indoctrination." In one particularly bizarre train of thought , he asserted that Muslim congressman Keith Ellison was working with gay and lesbians to impose Sharia law: "He wants to bring in Sharee [sic] law through the homosexual agenda.... They are using the homosexuals as a political battering ram to bring forth what? Sharee [sic] law." Dean has also accused President Obama of turning the U.S. into a "Muslim nation," and recently roundly appalled the Minnesota state House when he delivered a prayer questioning the president's Christian faith.
Dean's unhinged extremism hasn't turned off Bachmann. She was the host of a 2009 fundraiser for his group, participated in a documentary he made, and delivered a public prayer calling for God to "expand this ministry beyond anything that the originators of this ministry could begin to think or imagine." This summer, Bachmann is scheduled to share the stage with Dean at a Tea Party event in Kansas.
Bachmann also continues to lend her support -- including headlining a fundraiser in May -- to the Minnesota Family Council, an anti-gay group that she worked closely with when leading the marriage amendment effort in the state legislature. The MFC has been on the front-lines of the effort to stop numerous gay rights bills in Minnesota, and is active in a renewed push for a marriage amendment. The group backs up its efforts with vicious anti-gay rhetoric. Its president, Tim Prichard, has compared homosexuality to cigarette smoking and has said that comprehensive sex ed in schools would promote "homosexual behavior, anal or oral sex, things like that." Prichard blamed the suicides of four LGBT students on Gay-Straight Alliances and "homosexual indoctrination." The group has been a leading player in the Religious Right's campaign against anti-bullying policies in schools.
And then there was Bachmann's $9,000 donation to a Minnesota group credited with performing "exorcisms" on gay teens. She also remains closely allied with Generation Joshua, a far-right anti-gay group that funnels conservative homeschoolers into right-wing politics, which has dispatched kids to help with her congressional campaigns.
Bachmann has carried the flag of her extremist Minnesota allies to Congress, where in positioning herself as a leader of the Tea Party she loudly embraced the fiscal-issues Right while continuing to feed the social-issues Right.
In an illustration of both sides of the conservative movement merging in the Tea Party, Bachmann invited right-wing pseudo historian David Barton, who believes that Jesus opposed the minimum wage and the progressive income tax -- and who Bachmann calls a "national treasure" -- to speak to Congress about the Constitution. Like Barton, Bachmann deftly frames the anti-tax, pro-corporate ideology of fiscal conservatives in the moral language of social conservatives. At a Religious Right conference last month, she called the national debt an "immoral burden on future generations" and lamented that "many are discouraged from marriage by an underperforming economy." She is also fond of invoking the Founding Fathers to make her point about any number of issues, once even advocating reducing the federal government to its "original size." And in a classic Barton technique, she hasn't been above using a totally made-up George Washington quote to bash President Obama.
Bachmann's efforts to merge the small government crowd with the big-government-in-personal-life crowd were again on full display this weekend, as she praised New York's marriage equality vote as an example of states' rights, while continuing to advocate a constitutional amendment that would take away the right of states to expand marriage equality.
Bachmann illustrates the odd brew that has created the Tea Party -- the energy of social conservatives papered over with the money of pro-corporate conservatives, mixed up with a new rhetoric that combines the two issues. Her ability to be at home in both worlds makes her an unexpected powerhouse of a candidate... but one whose prominence should continue to be troubling to the American people.
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